Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography

by William Lee Miller

Paperback, 2003




Vintage (2003), 536 pages


William Lee Miller's ethical biography is a fresh, engaging telling of the story of Lincoln's rise to power. Through careful scrutiny of Lincoln's actions, speeches, and writings, and of accounts from those who knew him, Miller gives us insight into the moral development of a great politician -- one who made the choice to go into politics, and ultimately realized that vocation's fullest moral possibilities. As Lincoln's Virtues makes refreshingly clear, Lincoln was not born with his face on Mount Rushmore; he was an actual human being making choices -- moral choices -- in a real world. In an account animated by wit and humor, Miller follows this unschooled frontier politician's rise, showing that the higher he went and the greater his power, the worthier his conduct would become. He would become that rare bird, a great man who was also a good man. Uniquely revealing of its subject's heart and mind, it represents a major contribution to our understanding and of Lincoln, and to the perennial American discussion of the relationship between politics and morality.… (more)

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LibraryThing member dougwood57
William Lee Miller has accomplished a remarkable feat - he has written a truly fresh biography of Abraham Lincoln. In some ways it easier to describe what Miller's book is not rather than what it is. Lincoln's Virtues is not a standard biography, nor is it an uncritical hagiography, nor certainly is it a so-called `debunking' work that would show us an unworthy despicable Lincoln (if anything Miller debunks the debunkings). Miller does take the reader through many of the events of Lincoln's life, but always with an eye to Lincoln's "moral escalation" as a politician (retain the emphasis on both parts: moral and politician).

Lincoln was a politician. The revered, marble-man Lincoln is typically not viewed as a `mere' politician, but in fact politics and his role as a practitioner of politics - a politician - were the centerpiece of his life. As Miller observes in the Preface "if Abraham Lincoln was not a `politician', then words have no meaning." (The Preface, which can be read on Amazon gives the reader an excellent sense of the book and whether it might be of interest).

In this reader's view, Miller spends too much time on Lincoln's early days - the evidence from the early days is quite clouded looking back through the lens of Lincoln's later. While these early events were no doubt important to young Lincoln's development, whether we can parse their importance today is highly problematic - doubly so given the underlying doubts about the `facts'. An interesting and perhaps revealing set of facts does emerge, however. Lincoln was a social nonconformist - he did not drink, hunt, fish, regularly attend church, or swear - all of which marked him as highly idiosyncratic in the frontier communities of his youth. And yet, Lincoln was no social outcast; to the contrary he was often at the center of social life telling stories.

Miller rewards the patient reader, especially with the chapters on the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the Cooper Union Address. The Lincoln-Douglas debates have provided fodder for the Lincoln debunkers who want to portray Lincoln the `Great Emancipator' as a common white racist (to use a 20th century term). Lincoln did say some highly offensive things (to our ears) about the social inequality of black and white. Without excusing Lincoln, Miller reminds us of the context. Lincoln was running for political office in a state that had recently adopted a constitutional amendment by popular vote to exclude all blacks, free or slave, from its borders. Moreover, he was running against a political Giant, Stephen A. Douglas, a proud across-the-board white supremacist. One really must read Douglas's statements to appreciate Lincoln's. Here is the key point of dispute between Lincoln and Douglas: Was the black man a human being with the right not to be enslaved? Lincoln said yes on both counts and Douglas said no and no.

Miller demonstrates that Lincoln rose from his unlikely background to potential Republican nominee for the presidency because of his stance against slavery and because of his ability to communicate his thoughts with absolute clarity. The Cooper Union Address, discussed at some length, established his credentials to interested, but skeptical Easterners and was key to his political rise. Lincoln conveyed his reasoning without evoking great waves of emotion and, in this instance also without his trademark storytelling.

Miller's Lincoln is a politician: an unstinting party man, willing to compromise to attain policy goals, and standing on core principles. (Lincoln the man also shines through as a fundamentally decent, honest, generous person, but that is not the book's focus). Lincoln's core principles were chronologically, first, that slavery was wrong (or nothing is wrong) and, second, preservation of the Union. The Union that Lincoln sought to preserve was no mere gathering of states, but rather a republic, the first modern republic. Lincoln came to regard its preservation as paramount, but also believed that slavery would not survive within that Union.

Miller quotes Lincoln's letter to his long-ago Congressional colleague Alexander Stephens: "You think slavery is right and should be extended; while we think slavery is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us." That statement captures the essence of the argument with Lincoln's trademark ability to get at the nub of a thing in a way that anyone could understand and no one could dispute.

Oddly, Miller concludes his book at Lincoln's inauguration (after a brief, but interesting discussion of the forgotten and failed Crittenden Compromise). It is a measure of Miller's success that the reader feels regret rather than relief that Miller did not explore Lincoln's Virtues in his years as President.

Addendum: Miller subsequently wrote President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman that covers Lincoln in the White House.
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LibraryThing member kamwb
A very good examination of the morality and realism of Lincoln's positions. Shows him to be a preeminent social moralist. William Lee Miller does a masterful job.
LibraryThing member J.v.d.A.
Dear Lord have I struggled with this book; seduced by the well designed cover and a long standing desire to read more about Lincoln I purchased this book a couple of years ago now and abandoned it about half-way through....just a little too much of a plod for my taste, though I do intend to attempt to finish it.
LibraryThing member CreekRunningNorth
An astonishingly compelling read. Nineteenth century US history may be limited in he public imagination to the Civil War, but the century was crucial in shaping the modern US.
Miller's book traces Lincoln's evolution from a backwoods lawyer to the most revered statesman in US history, a martyr to the cause of freedom. It's a compelling read, exposing the battles between moral purity and expediency, jockeying for political position between the Whigs and the Democrats (with some interesting parallels to recent political history) , and the slow spread of abolitionist sentiment through the US. Miller largely omits mention of the war itself: the stories are well known, available elsewhere, done to death. But by the time you finish the book, the war seems - in retrospect - inevitable.

While Miller obviously adores Lincoln, any puffery here is well bracketed by exposition of the man's flaws. What emerges is a complex portrait of a man seldom portrayed in more than a one-dimensional fashion, even in epic treatments of the Civil War such as Ken Burns' documentary.
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